Category Archives: Latin America

The Importance of Being Earnest

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The XVII Cumbre Iberoamericana (Ibero-American Summit) was celebrated in Santiago de Chile over the last few days. Political leaders or their trusted representatives from 19 Latin American nations were united to confer about ‘social cohesion’, as well as Heads of States from Spain, Portugal and Andorra, plus Spain’s King Juan Carlos I.

Spain, or course, has a very special relationship with most of these nations, due to its colonial domination of most of Latin America during the best part of the past 500 years or so.

King Juan Carlos of Spain is usually regarded as a moderate and considerate Monarch, not usually known to be losing his tempers. On Sunday, however, he set a precedent that he may come to regret by telling Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to shut up (“¡¿Por qué no te callas?!”).

The King’s quite undiplomatic, angry outburst at the Ibero-American summit followed days of criticism by a number of Latin American leaders of Spain’s contemporary political and business influence in former Spanish colonies.

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President Hugo Chávez reminded the summit amongst other calamities that Spain had been responsible for the largest genocide that the history had ever seen, after the Latin American continent had been conquered in 1492, claimed for the Spanish Crown, and colonized thereafter.

Spain’s El Periodico newspaper, representing the Catalonian region where anti-royal sentiment runs high, said on Sunday that Chávez’s behavior had been quite intolerable.

The Spanish national newspaper, EL PAÍS said in an editorial, “Maybe it wasn’t the best thing to say but the Monarch’s fit shows just how much the Venezuelan (… President’s …) diatribe upset the Spanish”.

But some observers reacted with unease about the King taking on a more political role when the Monarchy really has a symbolic state function under Spain’s constitution.

Juan Carlos I won the trust of Spaniards by promoting the transition to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 and has always distanced himself from any political role.

One of the few voices in Spain to criticize the King over the attack on Venezuela’s Chávez came from the Izquierda Unida group, which said that King Juan Carlos acted like a 17th century monarch addressing his vassals.

“Telling an elected head of state to shut up is something you can’t do in Spain or abroad”, a spokesman of Izquierda Unida was quoted as saying.

According to the Associated Press news agency, Hugo Chávez responded to the King’s outburst: “I do not offend by telling the truth. The Venezuelan government reserves the right to respond to any aggression, anywhere, in any space and in any manner”. Hugo Chávez also pointed out that he had been democratically elected three times, whereas he hinted that no-one ever had voted King Juan Carlos into office.

King Juan Carlos already had a controversial time earlier last week when he visited Spain’s disputed North African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, sparking protests from Morocco, which claims the territories as theirs.

It looks to me as though it may not be so easy to be a King in this day and age, be that in Spain, in Morocco, or wherever. Perhaps times have changed and not everyone has taken it in, yet.

The world is no longer what it might have been in 1492, or so it would appear. 

Ernesto Che Guevara’s Day in Santa Clara, Cuba

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October 9th, 1967, was the day when Ernesto Che Guevara was executed. That’s forty years ago, today.

He was captured by the Bolivian army on October 8th, in Vallegrande and executed the following day in La Higuera, in the jungles of Bolivia, at the age of 39. His death only enhanced Che Guevara’s mythical stature as a legend, not only in Latin America but also around the world. 

Che Guevara’s body was later exhumed from its communal grave in Bolivia and offered to Cuba. The remains were reburied in a specially built mausoleum in Santa Clara, Cuba (see photo), the site of Che’s decisive victory against Fulgencio Batista‘s forces at the end of 1958. 

I visited Santa Clara twice, in 2003 and in 2005. In 2003, I was not allowed to enter the mausoleum where Che and his seven guerilla mates are enshrined, due to some building work or whatever, but in 2005, I could go in and have a look. Photography was not permitted once inside. There was a large wall with 7 or 8 embossed wall plaques commemorating the dead, and an eternal light underneath Che’s allotted central panel. The mood inside appeared a tad contrived, especially if one considers that there seem to be reasonable doubt as to whether the bones found and repatriated to Cuba were in fact those of the man himself.

In any case, it seems important to remind ourselves that Guevara was neither Cuban nor Bolivian. He was born in Argentina and was a doctor by training. He gave up his profession and his native land to pursue the emancipation of the poor of the earth. In 1956, along with Fidel Castro and a small number of other badly armed rebels, he had crossed the Caribbean in a rickety yacht called Granma on the mad mission of invading Cuba and overthrowing the US sponsored dictator, Batista. Landing in a hostile swamp and losing most of their contingent, the survivors fought their way to the Sierra Maestra.

Two years later, and by now named Comandante, Che was victorious in this very same place, Santa Clara, in derailing a train full of Batista soldiers and thus stopping them from reaching their destination, Santiago de Cuba in the far east of the island of Cuba. Two days later, Batista fled Cuba, and Castro and his revolutionary men took over. The rest is history.

I went to see the remnants of the derailed train waggons In Santa Clara, now equipped as a museum to the Revolution. Santa Clara is certainly a place worthy of a visit for those who are interested in the Che Guevara trail.

Yesterday, Raúl Castro and other survivors of the 1958 train assault paid homage to Ernesto Che Guevara, hinting again at the need of a change of direction in present day Cuba. His ailing brother, Fidel, expressed his respect and gratitude for Che, in an article published in the Cuban publication, Juventud Rebelde

Rumours never ceased that Fidel Castro and Che did not really see eye to eye some time after the Cuban revolution had been won, because Ernesto soon started criticizing Communist Party doctrines. He revoked his Cuban passport, left Cuba for Africa and the Congo, and later for Bolivia, where he tried to fight for the oppressed indigenous people of the Andes. His Bolivian battle was never really successful.

You may wonder why I should concern myself with Cuban affairs on my supposedly Spanish-themed blog. In my mind Cuba and Spain are intrinsically linked due to Cuba’s long time domination by the Spanish. Cuba was linked to Spain’s wealth, to the Spanish slave trade and to Spanish history. As such, in my opinion, Spain may well have an active role to play in Cuba’s, hopefully peaceful, transition into the 21st century, especially in the light of big brother, USA, not being trustworthy with such endeavours. 

As for Che Guevara, it seems important to me to remember his 40th anniversary even though Che’s methods are no longer relevant in our day and age.

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I want to recommend the movie, The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), by Brazilian director, Walter Salles, if you want to know Ernesto before he became Che.  

Fiesta Time in Ecuador

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People in the Republic of Ecuador celebrate the Fiesta de la Virgen del Cisne today in the city of Loja in the mountains of southern Ecuador. Sadly, I cannot make it there but, if she got there in time, our daughter Kilina will.

The city of Loja is one of the oldest cities in Ecuador and was established in its current location in 1548. It was the first city in Ecuador that made use of electricity in 1897; quite an achievement considering the time. 

Loja has an estimated population of 150,000 people and is particularly proud of its music conservatory. It is said that the best, most talented musicians in Ecuador originate from Loja. Some people call Loja the cultural and musical capital of this Andean nation.

The best known attraction to visit Loja for, however, is the festival of the Virgen del Cisne. What’s that all about?

North west of the city of Loja you’ll find the place of El Cisne, a small town in Ecuador’s Southern Andes, the site of the venerated shrine of the Virgen María

Every August there is a three day pilgrimage of faithful Ecuadorians carrying the statue of La Virgen del Cisne from El Cisne to Loja with fiestas in every town along the way. The statue of the Virgin Mary is carried 74 kms to the cathedral of Loja where it is the focus of one of the oldest festivals in Latin America on September 8th, i. e. today. 

 

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The venerated statue remains in the cathedral of Loja until November 3rd and is then returned to El Cisne for the remainder of the year. 

We expect our daughter to be back long before that.

 

Let Me Introduce You to the Outstanding Artist, Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón

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100 years ago, Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón, as her name appears on her birth certificate, was born in July 1907 in her parents’ house, known as La Casa Azul (The Blue House), in Coyoacán, which at the time was a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City. We know her better as Frida Kahlo, but there is not much evidence that we really know her.

I do not pretend to know much more about Frida Kahlo than any of you do, but I sure would have liked to know her during her life time. She must have been a fascinating woman.

I have seen some of her paintings in a number of exhibitions and museums. Earlier this week, I had the good fortune to see an exhibition composed of some 60 photographs of her. Of course, I’ve seen the bio-pic Frida, played and produced by Salma Hayek, who, I must say, totally convinced me as to the spirit of Frida Kahlo and to the explosiveness of the time, the Twenties and Thirties, in post-revolutionary Mexico.

On the afternoon of 17 September, 1925, Frida and her friend Alex were involved in a severe accident of a bus collision with a tram, and Frida was very severely injured. A metal rod had made a very deep abdominal wound, her third and fourth lumbar vertebrae were fractured, and her uterus was pierced. Frida ended up trapped in a body cast for months. The accident left her in a great deal of pain. She recovered ever so slowly. She took up painting to occupy her time during her temporary state of immobilization. Before the accident, Frida Kahlo had begun to study medicine; now she soon embarked on a full-time painting career.

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As a young artist, Frida Kahlo approached the famous Mexican muralist painter, Diego Rivera, whom she had previously admired, and asked him for his advice on pursuing art as a career. He immediately recognized her talent and her unique expression as truly special and uniquely Mexican. He encouraged her development as an artist, and began an intimate relationship with her. They were married in 1929, much to the disapproval of Frida’s mother, a Mexican lady of indigenous roots. Frida’s father, by the way, had been a German emigrant of Hungarian descent.

If you are into art, if you admire creative women, if you like to know more about the period in which Mexico was a thriving society, if you appreciate beauty that is not cast in the superficial terms of Hollywood and if you enjoy a spellbinding performance by an outstanding Latina actress, let me suggest you get a DVD out of your local video hire shop. Even if your Spanish is not good enough to listen to some of the original soundtrack, Frida Kahlo’s story is absorbing enough in English, just the same, or any language of your choice.

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The movie is called Frida, here in Europe. In the USA and Canada, it is called Frida Kahlo. It was filmed and produced in 2002; it was released in 2003.

For those of you living in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, or San Francisco, there will be a fantastic exhibition of paintings by Frida Kahlo touring from the Walker Art Center (October 2007) to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (February 2008), to culminate at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (June 2008). A core of that forthcoming exhibition was shown at the Tate Modern Museum in London, UK, a year ago or so.

A must-see, in my books. 

Greetings From the Rainforest

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We have news from our daughter Kilina, who is spending a summer volunteering in Ecuador. After one month of working in Hacienda El Porvenir, at the foot of Cotopaxi volcano, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, and a number of hikes and horse riding expeditions, she has now gone off on a four day excursion to the Amazon rainforest, still in Ecuador.

 

She had to go back down to the capital, Quito, from where a small group of about 15 IASTE students from all over the world set off to Reserva Cuyabeno, close to Ecuador’s borders with Colombia.

 

Upon being met by their guide they were transported by motorized canoe to the camp, the Cuyabeno River Lodge, in Amazon National Park.

During their explorations they will be able to observe the exotic flora and faunæ (monkeys, river dolphins, etc.) peculiar to this unique environment. Apparently there are 15 species of monkey and well over 500 types of birds in this area. With luck they might even spot a giant anaconda on the Hormiga River, a tributary river of the Laguna Grande.

 

On a hike through the primary rainforest, guides will introduce them to various medicinal plants. They will also have the opportunity to observe monkeys and parrots, among others, and they might even possibly spot a jaguar. They will also run across various animal tracks (tapir, armadillo, paca, puma, etc.).

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The group is expected back in Quito on Monday morning. From there, it will be back to Cotopaxi for Kilina for another month of slave work (sorry, volunteer work).

 

What fun.

 

We sometimes forget what a lovely planet this still is, despite it all.

Cuba Celebrates 26 July Without Fidel

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Cuba celebrates a national holiday today in commemoration of the 26 July 1953 rebel attack on the Moncada barracks, in Santiago de Cuba, which is considered a key factor in the making of the Cuban revolution of 1958/59.

Last year’s 26 July celebrations were the last time that Fidel Castro was seen in public. A week later El Commandante was admitted to hospital for a series of operations on his intestinal organs.

 

This year’s acts in the city of Camagüey were led by Cuba’s acting president, Raul Castro, who is Fidel’s younger brother. Fidel had temporarily handed over power on 31 July last year, ahead of surgery.

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In my mind Cuba has had a bit of a rough time over the last 500 years, or more.

 

Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba on 28 October 1492, having sailed from San Salvador (in today’s Bahamas). Columbus was very impressed with the beauty and nature of this large island. He was astounded by its splendor and wrote at length about Cuba in his journal and in letters to Spain. Despite finding very little gold on the island, or other preciosities, Columbus was infatuated. Cuba was claimed for the Spanish Crown, and remained Spanish until 1898, even though it had been briefly annexed by Britain in 1762 (Cuba was later exchanged for Florida). During all this time, Cuba was continually exploited by Spanish, French and British profiteers.

A series of rebellions during the 19th century failed to end Spanish rule, but increased tensions between Spain and the United States, resulting in the Spanish-American War, finally led to the Treaty of Paris and thus, Spanish withdrawal. Cuba gained formal independence in 1902, under the Platt Agreement, which however, among other things, gave the United States the right to intervene militarily in Cuba. Cuba was now exploited by the American profiteers. Only in 1925, the United States finally recognized Cuban sovereignty over the island. Which, by the way, did not stop United Fruit Company from further exploitation.

I do not want to bore you with a discourse on more Cuban history, neither pre-Castro nor post-Batista, but you might have an inkling that the Cubans themselves did not have much of a say in the affairs of their lives, either before 1925 or after, or indeed, ever.

The good news today may be that Raul Castro has now offered an ‘olive branch’ to whoever is elected US president in 2008.

Let’s wait and see if the Cubans can finally have their particular Berlin Wall come down and can at last have a say in matters of their own. Perhaps Raul Castro can do a Cuban Perestroika.

 

And let Cuba have their Guantánamo back. The Platt Agreement stipulated a 100-year lease, which ended in 2002. Two Guantánamo wrongs do not make one right.

Ecuador is Waiting

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Our daughter, Kilina is about to embark on another journey of a lifetime. This time next week she will be on an Iberia plane from Madrid to Quito, Ecuador, where she will spend three months over the Summer, working as a volunteer at the National Park of the splendid Cotopaxi volcano at an altitude of 4,400 m. The invitation is courtesy of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito.

Kilina’s employer will be Tierra del Volcán.

Here is some information from their website: “Tierra del Volcán functions in one of the most beautiful and privileged places in Ecuador, Cotopaxi, considered the highest active volcano in the world. Tierra del Volcán has three haciendas available in the foothills of different volcanoes that surround majestic Cotopaxi, each with its own magic, ecosystem and distinctive climate. With us you will be lodged in fascinating hacienda houses and experience the adrenaline rush of living an adventure with experts who will share unforgettable moments with you. A broad range of activities are available: Horseback riding, mountain biking, trekking, hiking, mountain climbing, rappelling, bird watching, camping, cultural experiences, and more.”

We expect Kilina to start a new blog on her latest journey soon, telling us in detail about her South American adventure. Here is a link to her new blog.

 

By the way, a bank note like the one shown below of 10,000 Sucres won’t be enough to pay for Kilina’s bus fare from the airport to downtown Quito. 10,000 Sucres is the equivalent of approx. 0,40 USD. Imagine you wanted to buy a bus. That might set you back by 2,505,017,200 Sucres. Not many people have a pocket calculator big enough to convert that into Pounds or Euros. Okay, not many people actually want to buy a bus, either. At least not in Ecuador.

 

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P. S. After Kilina having arrived in Quito, it transpires – according to her – that Ecuador has given up its currency, the Sucres, and is using the US American greenbacks only. The transition between currencies obviously has been a difficult time for everybody and your average Quito person. The cost of living has apparently gone up phenomenally. I imagine that this is even more of a problem in the less affluent provinces. That makes buying your average bus even more expensive.

 

In Ecuador, that is.